A Tale of Two Cards

A few years ago I had the privilege of visiting the city of Paris. Among the glories of the “City of Light” that had once been the second city of Roman Catholicism ( the venue of the work of Saint Albert the Great, Saint Thomas Aquinas, the capital of Saint Louis IX and the city of so many other Saints and martyrs) is the great Baroque complex of buildings known as Les Invalides. Built by Louis XIV (1638-1715) as a home for old or wounded (the “invalids” of the title) soldiers it has as its center a striking church named after Saint Louis.  The larger part of the vast and grand church has been secularized and is better known as the site of Napoleon’s Tomb and is no longer used for Mass. However, a smaller section remains and is a “memorial chapel” for more recent French generals and military notables.

There one may see plaques commemorating the names, dates, and accomplishments of the deceased ending with the striking and peremptory command Priez pour lui! (“Pray for him!”)

That phrase is in my mind this November, traditionally the month dedicated to the “Holy Souls”: i.e., the Faithful Departed still in need of our prayers and Masses as they make their way after death through the preparation for their final glory through the cleansing of Purgatory.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (CCC 1030). It notes that “this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031).

The purification is necessary because, as Scripture teaches, nothing unclean will enter the presence of God in heaven (Rev. 21:27) and, while we may die with our mortal sins forgiven, there can still be many impurities in us, specifically venial sins and the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven.

That militarily abrupt command I quoted above, “Pray for him!” expresses nearly two millennia of both Christian practice and Catholic doctrine. These souls cannot merit for themselves, they need our prayers and Masses to hasten their final release from what is universally described as a kind of Via Dolorosa.

As I write this, however, I cannot but mention for your consideration a trend that as your pastor and a Catholic priest I believe needs to be addressed.

When I was ordained in 1978 and started visiting wakes to offer prayers for deceased parishioners the well-known Catholic remembrance card had a standard format: one on side a “holy card picture” of Our Lord, Our Lady, Saints, Angels, etc and on the other a prayer for the deceased. Back then one could still occasionally see the traditional “Gentlest Heart of Jesus” prayer with its references to a drop of Thy Precious Blood easing the flames of Purgatory.  More often one would see a newer prayer from the reformed Liturgy, or quotes from Scripture or the Saints appropriate to the theme of death and salvation.

However a process was underway whose results are now apparent.

Today, the card still might have a sacred image on one side, but more and more often a photo of a sunrise, sunset, seashore or other natural and non-religious imagery. What one now, sad to say, rarely finds on the other side is a prayer or anything drawn from Catholic tradition or culture. An impartial observer unfamiliar with the actual deceased person might even assume that he/she was not a Christian, nor even had any particular religion at all.

The quintessentially Catholic and once universally known simple prayer for the dead Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord today is most often met with a puzzled silence; much less the also once universally known reply And let perpetual light shine upon them. This is not true only of the “unchurched” but also of practicing and regular Catholics.

Many of the “eulogies” that are sometimes insisted upon at Catholic Funerals are reflections upon the mourner’s loss and memories, without a word about the deceased’s religious life (if there was one), much less a proclamation of Catholic Faith in the necessity of prayer for the dead.

I must admit the Church herself as we have experienced her over these decades on the grass-roots level has not effectively resisted this secularization of death and the removal of any vestige of concern for the person’s soul before Almighty God. The substitution of unrelated “favorite songs” (not always religious) in place of genuine liturgical music is nearly, universal today. The old standards Ave Maria or Panis Angelicus, though having nothing to do with a Funeral have at least the sanction of Catholic tradition. The newer popular selections often do not even have any relevance to a Funeral other than to make me feel better. (A perfect example is Here I Am Lord with its bold assertion “I will go if you need me”. This hymn is a vocation song, not a Funeral Hymn. When it comes to death, we didn’t choose to “go” and, pardon me, He probably doesn’t “need” me all that much. I’m the one that needs HIM!)  The stories of homilies in which family remembrances and assertions that “grandpa is in heaven” are the subject even though “grandpa” might have rejected every conscious opportunity he had to receive the Sacraments or live as a Catholic are too legion to be entirely untrue.

Now, of course, one does not over-compensate with harshness or condemnatory words or attitudes which would also be inconsistent with Catholic teaching on the Mercy of God and Purgatory; as well as a proper regard for the grief of others.

However a more judicious use of traditional Catholic funerary practices such as perhaps vestment color, the choice of solid Catholic music appropriate to a Funeral Mass, makes for a well-done solemnity which both avoids a superficial “joy” that few actually feel at a funeral as well as uplifting the mourners while preserving a reverent and dignified humility before God that accepts death, judgment, and provides a hope founded upon the intercessory power of the Mass as well as prayers for the dead both by ourselves and the Angels and Saints.

That abrupt command “Pray for him!” on the plaques in the Invalides is also a supreme act of charity for the dead.

As one twentieth century Saint put it: Make friends with the souls in Purgatory!

When our time comes, they will be our best friends.

November 7, 2013

Father Hewes

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